Confronting Viral Uncertainty

Now what? Now that we have read the books and essays we so badly wanted to and fixed almost everything broken that had been screaming for our attention for months, if not years. Having cleaned the dirtiest devilish nooks of the house, played all possible games with the kids, used all tricks to keep them busy, browsed all the websites churning out scary statistics wrapped in apocalyptic narratives, staring into the uncertain potentialities of each coming day in self-quarantine, confronting the emptiness of longer days of approaching summer, we want to scream it out into the world: what next?

The first thing to note is that being able to ask this question is a privilege; being able to philosophize a mundane, material condition of the pandemic and the limitations it imposes on lives that we had so carefully curated for ourselves, or the possibilities of a world wiggling out through the cracks of the crumbling infrastructure of a previous one, is a privilege not available to all. There are millions around us for whom the mandatory social-distancing is much more threatening than the virus itself. Maybe the privilege to theorize is premised upon the non-privilege or existential imperative of making do and staying alive. Maybe the world that can shut down and the world that cannot are the two sides of the same capitalist coin which has enlivened the material, symbolic, and affective infrastructure of production, circulation, and distribution that skilfully crafted and maintained the difference between the two. A difference and distance that does not prohibit contact, but in fact regulates it. The pandemic opens up possibilities of its more strict regulation and intense surveillance. But it also reveals the essential connectedness of the apparent divisions.

Some of us are slowly re-syncing our ‘distanced’ lives with normal routines; setting up our work desks in living rooms, hoping to revive the trajectory of the life that flowed smoothly for us in the past, unwilling to be attuned to the possibilities and challenges of the new world that comes out of this crisis. Partly, because the old world suited us better, but partly because we are confident of human abilities to win this war against the ‘natural’ challenge posed by the virus and our ability to survive to see that day irrespective of the cost. The virus is not going to affect us if we are strictly following the only sane and sanitized practice – social distancing. It is both selfish and altruistic in the sense that it helps you stay safe while simultaneously securing the safety of the others (although it denies us the satisfaction of pinning down the blame on the ‘enemy’). The lock-downs and mandatory social distancing seem to be a mere interlude—albeit a unique one—in the onward march towards freedom and progress. 

And there are others who, in a similar vein, but inspired by a different zeitgeist, appropriate the current uncertainty to suit their narratives, to avow the truthfulness of their doctrines. No disease is scary enough to stop them from doing God’s work, no threat excuses them from shirking their religious responsibilities. While pandemics are God’s way of punishing the people who have strayed far from His message, how could shutting down mosques and abandoning the word of God be a potential defense against the disease? What could possibly save us pain and trouble is asking His forgiveness, invoking His mercy. He works in miraculous ways after all.

What all those, who had had their lives and worlds figured out, cannot really deal with is the sheer uncertainty of the present moment. Confronting a new and almost unprecedented situation, they rummage through their old bags of theories to find a piece of narrative that hides the gaping holes in their knowledge-systems that the virus opens up. What they need to do instead is to take this moment as a corrective to their theories and attend to the world that might emerge out of this crisis. For neither lock-downs nor meditations are going to bring back the order that their old theories promised. It has become difficult to neatly segregate the world into haves and have-nots, believers and non-believers, carriers and non-carriers, sane and insane, biological and ethical. The virus, for one, doesn’t care. And people dying of hunger will accompany the virus jumping the spatial boundaries of class, religion, politics, and property throughout the globe.

In between the precautionary social distancing and a devil-may-care approach to social gatherings, the severity of the situation demands that we think of the people who don’t have the resources to sustain the lock-downs and mandatory isolations. Before the threat of dying of hunger makes them challenge the virus and the spatial restrictions to have their last shots at life, those of us, who have set up our work desks in our living rooms, need to find out ways and make sure that sustenance reaches them. After all we are all in it together. This is both selfish and altruistic in an unprecedented time and it requires us to challenge the distinction between thinking and doing too. It is the time not to sit idle and wait till the virus is gone; it is the moment to attend to the imperatives of a world that is breathing through the crisis.

This is what the members of Haqooq-e-Khalaq Movement had realized quite early on in the pandemic. A few other groups have been doing the same. These efforts nourish the possibilities of a new better world that challenges the eschewed distribution of the natural bounties. That emphasise the need to build community instead of self-seeking individuals. These are the efforts that could also prove a bulwark against the state’s tendency to make this state-of-exception a new norm in the society.

Abdul Aijaz is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington.


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